Running is a very popular form of exercise due to many factors. Running is convenient and there is virtually zero cost (other than a decent pair of shoes) and barely any skill development needed in order to begin participating. Many people get into running and stay with it as their main form of exercise because of the numerous benefits they have received from this practice.
This blog is for the runners – particularly those who have clocked many miles but have yet to get into strength training. Many of our clients have come to us with experience in running but some of those clients have also had injuries due to many hours of high-impact activity. Frequently, runners who do not strength train are looking for an answer to acute or chronic injuries in ligaments, bones, muscles, or joints. Listed below are the benefits of resistance training for runners – and our argument that all runners should be doing some type of weight-bearing exercise in their training.
Why is Strength Training for Runners So Important?
When you think about running, the exercise requires jumping from leg to leg. Though extremely accessible, running actually falls in a more “advanced” category when it comes to most training frameworks.
In every movement, the goal is to master stability and balance then add load. After a specific amount of strength is achieved, only then should you add in plyometrics and jumping.
Benefits of Strength Training for Runners
Runners, even elite runners, can improve running performance by generating force more quickly when they strength train. When you strength train, you get stronger and you’re able to generate more force into the ground. You not gain enhanced motor unit recruitment patterns from resistance training, but you begin to produce stronger and more efficient propulsive forces for optimal sprinting and distance running.
In fact, many studies show runners who strength train run faster over the same distance or longer at the same speed.
Increased Bone Mineral Density
One of the main benefits of resistance training for runners is injury prevention. Weight-bearing exercise strengthens bone by increasing bone mineral density. Weight training will help strengthen the internal structures of the body – joints, muscles, and connective tissues, which will help to prevent common injuries accrued through running.
Runners, even elite runners, can improve running performance by generating force more quickly if they include strength training in their routine.
By improving efficiency through strength training, runners are able to generate more force into the ground, which means running at a higher intensity. This is due in part to enhanced motor unit recruitment patterns.
Strength must be present in order to produce power.
“The running gait cycle is one of the purest forms of all plyometric activities, having been described as a series of alternating hops from one leg to another. During the participation of athletic competition, the athlete must produce strong and efficient (economical) propulsive forces for optimal sprinting and distance running performance.” (Panariello & Hansen, 2011)
Improved Running Economy
What does improved running economy mean? Basically, runners who strength train have been shown to run faster over the same distance or longer at the same speed. Multiple studies, new and old, have been done on running economy and strength training in runners. Check out these resources if you are interested:
THIS study from 1995
THIS study from 2008
THIS study from 2016
THIS study from 2016 which ALSO shows no additional hypertrophy (muscle size increases) in those who resistance trained
Common Running Issues & injuries
While there are many injuries and pains associated with running, the most common issues we see with runners is related to the knees. While there is a lot that could go into what’s causing knee pain, at times the mere act of overuse (especially if you’re a marathon runner or ultra distance runner) can be the culprit. Sometimes, some pain or inflammation is unavoidable, but if you strengthen the lower body musculature properly you can mitigate severe injury risk and prevent future pain and issues.
Hamstring injuries are one of the more common muscular injuries, especially among sprinters. Therefore, the hamstrings are one of the most important muscles for runners to strengthen.
The hamstrings role is to flex the knee and extend the hip. During higher speed sprints, the main role of the hamstrings is to absorb knee flexion while initiating hip extension. At high speeds, this causes a lot of stress to the hamstrings which makes the runner more prone to injury. Eccentrically training the hamstrings allows one to increase strength in the hamstrings where it is most vulnerable while running.
Core strength is also important for runners. A strong core will improve better posture for long distance running.
Muscles to Strengthen for Runners
The musculature of the lower body is obviously important when considering a strength training program for runners. The glutes, hamstring, quads, and core musculature should all be worked in a basic training program.
Hamstrings: The Nordic Curl
A beneficial exercise used by many strength coaches is some variation of the nordic curl. Sometimes it’s done on a glute ham developer (if you’ve seen this at the gym it’s kind of like a back extension but instead of angled at 45 degrees, it’s essentially flat and has big round pads where your quads go and a place for your ankles to hook into as well). You can do back extensions and other exercises on this, but in the strength community the main use for this is glute and ham development through the glute ham raise exercise.
You can also perform nordic curls with a band and a rack and barbell as seen here:
Feet and Ankles: Unilateral Training
It’s also very important to strengthen the feet and ankles. One of the best ways to improve foot and ankle strength and stability is through unilateral training.
Balancing on one leg will strengthen the feet and stability in the ankles which will strengthen the connective tissue around the ankle joint. The best way to strengthen the feet is being barefoot more often so you’re giving a stimulus to the muscles in your feet. Being barefoot regularly is something you may need to work your way up to over time; especially if you’ve been wearing shoes with a lot of cushion or padding. You’ll want to practice “feeling” the ground as you’re doing whatever movement you’re doing so you’re trying to connect to those muscle in the feet more frequently.
Single leg toe touches are a great first movement for this. This is a single leg hinge movement that you can work on without needing to add load.
Lower Leg Muscles: Calves and Tibialis Anterior
The lower leg muscles are sometimes neglected in regular resistance programs. These muscles are important to strengthen if you’re a runner.
Shin splints can occur in runners due to the tibialis absorbing each jump for extended running sessions over time.
In healthy and well trained runners, the stress a bone experiences after a long, hard run is not usually a problem. The body responds to the stress on the bone by remodeling the tibia to be stronger and thicker. This is why shin problems are more common in less experienced runners. Strengthening the tibalis can help some, but its main function is dorsiflexion of the ankle, not shock absorption.
Improving calf strength, abductor strength and strengthening the hip muscles along with ensuring the tibialis is strong, is potentially a more effective approach to preventing shin splints than simply doing tibialis raises alone. More recent studies have suggested that that hip weakness and instability is actually the potential cause of shin splints versus weak lower leg muscles.
Our Favorite Strength Exercises for Runners
ATG or KOT Split Squats
We love having our runners training split squat variations where they are focusing on pushing the knees over the toe. This can improve knee joint health over time.
Lunges are great because they have that locomotion component where you’re emphasizing one leg but having to stabilize the back leg as you’re moving into the movement on the front or working leg – very similar to how running works.
Lateral Step Downs
These train the eccentric portion of the step down while also imiproving ankle, hip, and knee stability and strength. It’s important when you do these to not push off with the foot on the ground but rather try to lower slowly and tap the floor with your foot as lightly as you can – using the toes to start but then moving to tapping only your heel as you progress. Also raise the box higher over time as you get stronger.
How Often Should Runners Incorporate Strength Training?
Is running your main goal? Are you doing races? Are you competitive?
If so, you might do best with two times per week strength training. We recommend structuring your training split with full body movements if you’re doing 2-3 times per week. Focus on single leg stability and hip and core strength.
Is running an enjoyable hobby? Are you using it to lose weight?
If either of these are you, you should prioritize strength training. While running is an effective way to maintain and improve heart health, it is not an effective tool for weight loss. We talk more about this concept in our podcast episode “Strength Training for Runners.” Essentially, you want to increase your muscle mass to build your metabolism; not slow it with excessive cardio and caloric deficits.
We recommend 3-4 strength training workouts per week if you are a hobby runner or someone who wants to improve your body composition.
Learn More About Strength Training For Runners
Our conclusion for runners: add regular resistance training to your workouts in order to prevent injury and improve performance. And if you want to learn more, listen to our podcast episode on this topic.
Heather & Katie
The Power Couple
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Beattie, K., Carson, B. P., Lyons, M., Rossiter, A., & Kenny, I. C. (2016). The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000001464
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Panariello, R. A., & Hansen, D. (2011, March 31). Preparation of the Athlete for the Running Gait Cycle During the Rehabilitation of the Post-Operative ACL Reconstructed Knee. Retrieved August 03, 2016, from https://bretcontreras.com/post-operative-acl-reconstructed-knee/
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Støren, Ø, Helgerud, J., Støa, E. M., & Hoff, J. (2008). Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy in Distance Runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40(6), 1087-1092. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e318168da2
Verrelst, R.; Willems, T. M.; De Clercq, D.; Roosen, P.; Goossens, L.; Witvrouw, E., The role of hip abductor and external rotator muscle strength in the development of exertional medial tibial pain: a prospective study British Journal of Sports Medicine 2013.